Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ancient Egyptians- Part 2-Mummification

To many the Egyptians seemed morbid and obsessed with death. However, if you look more closely at Egyptian culture they seemed to actually love life so much that they wanted to prolong it forever. This does not mean living eternally, but a life after death. The story of Osiris' resurrection explains this. 

Osiris ruled Egypt with his sister, Isis, and his brother Seth, the lord of chaos, grew jealous. Fitting that the jealous brother is the lord of chaos. Seth planned to murder his brother and seize the throne. Seth tricked Osiris and sealed him in a coffin that he flung into the Nile; Osiris drowned and that is how death was created. Isis, who is also Osiris' wife, retrieve his body only to have Seth dismember it and scatter the pieces. Isis enlisted the help of other deities and recovered the pieces and put his body back together with the help of Anubis. Anubis is the god of embalming. By doing this, the first mummy was created. Therefore it is believed that mummies are protected by Osiris. Osiris was able to be resurrected long enough to conceive Horus and then became the lord of the underworld.
Osiris God of the Underworld

That is a pretty crazy family for one, but that is how the Egyptians viewed the start of death. Osiris lived on after death and so can they.

The Egyptians are known for mummification. As soon as you think of Egypt your first thoughts are generally pyramids and mummies. The Egyptians didn't start mummifying until around the third dynasty. It was common for the dead to be buried in a pre-dynastic pit burial. It was normally just a hole in the ground with a body placed inside accompanied by personal objects and artifacts. The desert actually preserved the bodies perfect-ally and some historians believe that the Egyptians saw the bodies preserved and came up with mummification. (The sand would blow away and the bodies would resurface)
Example of  pit burial

In dynasty 3, it is believed that the Egyptians started to wrap their dead. The tomb of Queen Hetephares, from dynasty four, contained 4 canopic jars used to carry internal organs. The oldest mummy in existence, that we know of, is from dynasty 5. 

The Egyptians called the mummy the ka, which is like your soul, it lives on after the mortal body perishes. The Egyptians would dehydrate the body by packing it full of natron and let it sit for 30 days. Natron is like modern day baking soda. The lungs,liver, stomach and intestines were removed. The heart was also removed and was believed to be the seat of knowledge while the brain was though useless. They actually started to remove the brain at one point and just threw it away because they thought it was completely useless. They wrapped the body in linen cloth afterwards. Depending on the time period the body was  then placed in a sarcophagus inside a tomb. 

The burial process was roughly 70 days. This gave the family time to prepare the tomb for goods and for grieving. 

Protective amulets were placed inside body wrappings and priests would recite spells that would activate their powers. Spells and incantations can be found in tombs. These are known as Pyramid Texts. You can actually read some of the texts from the Pyramid of Unas. http://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/ Pyramid texts were used to ensure that the dead would be properly taken care of in the afterlife. Text sayings ranged from resurrecting your servants to reassembling your body. Anything the Egyptians thought would be helpful in the journey through the underworld they put in the texts.

Before the body is placed in the coffin, it is covered with a funerary mask that depicts the person as they were living. The body is then carried in a funerary procession. The priest perform the opening of the mouth ceremony which reanimates the ka and senses of the dead. The Book of the Dead contains a text on this. Tools were used to open the mouth and things were placed in front of the face so the dead could smell them. 
My mouth is opened by Ptah,
My mouth's bonds are loosed by my city-god.
Thoth has come fully equipped with spells,
He looses the bonds of Seth from my mouth.
Atum has given me my hands,
They are placed as guardians.
My mouth is given to me,
My mouth is opened by Ptah,
With that chisel of metal
With which he opened the mouth of the gods.
I am Sekhmet-Wadjet who dwells in the west of heaven,
I am Sahyt among the souls of On.
The mummy is laid to rest in the tomb and surrounded by grave goods.
Opening of the Mouth Ceremony

Mummies may be buried with shabtis, which were magical figurines that came to life and acted as servants. After the burial is complete the deceased makes the journey to the underworld for the weighing of the heart ceremony.

Before the weighing of the heart ceremony the deceased is lead into the Hall of Two Truths , by Anubis, where they were judged by Osiris and 42 gods. They were presented with a list of sins and had to deny each individual one. After this their hearts were weighed. 

The weighing of the heart ceremony is judged by Osiris who puts your heart on a scale to make sure it doesn't weigh more than a feather. Peace, balance, truth and goodness were what made up Ma'at, which was represented by a feather. If you had good Ma'at in your life your heart passed and you may pass yourself. If it was heavier than a feather you were fed to Ammut, a monster that ate evil doers.  So far no records of anyone actually failing this judgement day have been found. 

Weighing of the Heart Ceremony

Physical Representation of Ma'at

The Egyptians believed that they would live forever in their homeland, which was basically a paradise, after death. They thought it would be just a continuation of their life on Earth. They believed the shabti figures would perform all manual labor. The harvest would be huge and there would be no droughts or diseases. The deceased and their families would enjoy a life of luxury forever. Its crazy how they thought their life would just continue after death just the same, expect they wouldn't have to do anything but relax and enjoy themselves. They pursued this belief vigorously.

Can you imagine believing in this? It sounds amazing to die and live in paradise forever after death. Death wasn't viewed poorly by the Egyptians. Hell, the Kings oversaw the building of their own tombs. They would start building as soon as they obtained the throne! They wanted to ensure that they would be well taken care of in the afterlife and their ka was able to live freely and happily. 

I love the Egyptians, their beliefs, culture, customs and just everything. There is so much on Egyptians and their beliefs on death that you couldn't possibly cover it in one day. Let alone one class. I took an Ancient Egypt class with Sharon Park and learned so much. For any fellow Egyptian lovers I recommend this class, it will further your learning, 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Maya Burial Practices

I did my group presentation on the Mayas but I didn't go into extreme detail about their burial practices.

The Mayas believed that they must continuously appease the gods to ensure the survival of the world. Their most common way to appease the gods was the sacrifices of captives from warfare. However, when rulers needed to appeal/consult the gods, they shed their own blood as offering. There are repeating cycles of creation and destruction and it was a constant reminder of what would happen if the gods weren't appeased. The Mayas believed they had a responsibility to the gods. It was believed that the gods guided the Sun and Moon across the sky and at night they traveled through the underworld. Mayas believed the gods needed human help because other gods were trying to stop the Sun and Moon from moving in their continuous cycle through the sky and underworld. Sacrifice and bloodletting were simply the price to be paid for the survival of the universe. Its incredible that the Mayas were looking out for the survival of the whole universe, not just their people or Earth. It was considered a privilege to be sacrificed and was thought to give the victim immortality.

Lady Xoc and her auto-sacrifice


All of the Maya rituals were dictated by their ritual calendar, which was different than their solar calendar but ran simultaneously. The ritual calendar was called tzolkin, and was a 260-day cycle with 13 20-day periods sort of like our months in our calendars. Sexual abstinence was strictly observed before and during bloodletting rituals. The act of shedding one's own blood is also known as auto-sacrifice, or bloodletting. The elite were obsessed with offering their own blood. It was considered to be a major part of all important calendar events. The purpose of blood offerings was to send human energy skyward, to replenish the world's supply of life energy, and to receive divine powers from the gods. 

Bloodletting in an altered state
Evidence of auto-sacrifice is shown in relief carvings from Yaxchilan.  Lady Xoc, the wife of the ruler of Yaxchilan, is shown pulling a rope threaded with thorns through a hole pierced in her tongue. The image shows her husband, Shield Jaguar, holding a flaming torch above her which suggests that this was done in a dark temple interior. Her blood dripped onto a piece of bark paper in a bowl placed beneath her, which is common to do when performing auto-sacrifice. The paper is then set aflame and smoke coils would rise up from it. It is possible that Lady Xoc would have fasted before the event and taken hallucinogenic drugs to see the Vision Serpent in the coils of smoke. The Vision Serpent, a two headed serpent, is summoned to Earth during bloodletting and it provides Maya rulers with a channel between this realm and the supernatural one. It was thought to have two heads because one was in each of the worlds. Gods and ancestors enter through one mouth and travel through the body to emerge from the other. The serpent is typically depicted with its jaws spread and a head protruding from them. In the example pictured below, you can see one head of the serpent with a head emerging from it. The serpent was thought to be manifested in the starry night sky.

One head of the Vision Serpent

As Lady Xoc views the coils of smoke, the skeletal features of the war god appear from one head, and from the other the found of the Yaxchilan dynasty, Yat Balam, also called Jaguar Penis. Yat Balam is wearing the same headdress as the war god and bears a shield and lance. 

A purpose of the bloodletting was so that Lady Xoc could enter an ecstatic state, a state which is believed to allow a person to break through the barrier between the two realms. By doing this, she can communicate with the deities or ancestors to ask advice or request help. The Vision Serpent represents the threshold between realms; the open jaws are the portal through which ancestors and deities pass into the natural realm. In the relief carving, Lady Xoc is asking for the war god and ancestor's help in a battle her husband is about to face. The auto-sacrifice also commemorateed the accession of Shield Jaguar to Yaxchilan's throne and the birth of their son, Bird Jaguar. Said events took place around 724-726 CE. 

Clay Figurine, Male bloodletting his penis

Men also performed bloodletting. There have been several clay figurines found depicting male nobles sitting cross-legged, holding sharp obsidian knives (obsidian is volcanic glass) or sting ray spines positioned to lacerate their penises. It was considered an act of intense piety. The figure above is dress as a captive with a rope around his neck but he could also be a king or noble wearing the garments of a captive to represent his humility. Mayas believed this act to be essential way to communicate with the realm of the supernatural. Most of the time nobles and rulers were the ones who commonly practiced this, it was considered a privilege. In codices, the gods themselves are depicted performing similar acts on the Maya's behalf.  A vase was found that depicted the sun god drawing blood from his penis. Bloodletting was thus symbolized as a reciprocal obligation.

The Mayas also played a game simply called 'the ballgame' in which the losing team would be sacrificed to the gods. Generally the losing team was captives and they were starved or wounded in order to ensure the outcome of the game. The game could also be played a second time with one of the losing team's members head wrapped up and used as a ball. The exact rules of this game are unknown. The game was symbolic of life-and-death battle during creation. The court floor represented earth's platform, which separates the human world from the supernatural world. The gods determined the winners of the game, just like they determined who won warfare. The game was really a huge entertainment for the gods. The Spanish's first reaction to the game was that it was a popular entertainment game for the Mayas. Oh were they very right and wrong in that statement. In a way, sacrifice is entertainment to the Mayas.

Blood Offerings

The Mayas used the primary Aztec method of slicing the victim's chest open and taking out the heart to offer to the gods. The priest generally oversaw the ritual. Four aged men, called chacsin, honor of the rain god, held the victim on the sacrificial stone while a specialist, called nacom, cut open the victim's chest. 

Depiction of young woman at 'Lord and Lady Begin to Dance'
A festival called 'Lord and Lady Begin to Dance Festival', was celebrated in honor of Ixchel, goddess of the moon, beehives, fertility, medicine and wearing. A pretty young woman was chosen by craftsman to represent Ixchel. She was then sacrificed by priests and flayed. Her skin was then worn by a man who would sit at a loom and pretend to weave while the craftsman danced around him in animal costumes. The festival was complete when worshipers performed bloodletting and had a ritual bath. 

Example of a cenote that Maya victims would be thrown down. 
Other sacrifice types included simply cutting off the victim's head and casting victims into the waters of their sacred wells, cenotes, to drown.

Death and the Afterlife

The Mayas believed that when one died they entered the underworld through a cave or cenote. However, when a King died, he followed the path linked to the cosmic movement of the sun and fell into the underworld. Since kings were believed to possess powers they were reborn into the sky world to become gods. 

The Mayas dreaded natural death because they believed that the soul doesn't immediately/automatically enter paradise at death. The common people were buried underneath their homes with religious articles and personal artifacts from life. The priests' graves contained their books. 

Maya Funerary Urn
Higher nobles were actually cremated and funerary temples were built above urns. Some people mummified the heads of lords and kept them in family oratories. They even 'fed' them regularly. Talk about weird family members. 

Honoring the Dead

Tikal was one of the most powerful Maya kingdoms. It was located in the dense lowland of Peten region in Guatemala. The name derives from the Maya word ti ak'al, which means at the waterhole. It is one of the most important Maya burial complexes. Archaeological evidence says that most of the architecture was built to honor the dead. 

Modern-day Tikal
North Acropolis contains tombs of early Tikal kings. What is left of Tikal today was the final stage in a long process of construction by the Mayas. At first there was only a small platform supporting a pyramid structure. Over time, successions of rulers dying led to tombs being built over earlier tombs leaving superimposed burials and temples. Many early pyramids have huge plaster masks placed on  either side of the central stairway. This could possibly be a sun god representation. 

Some of the best Maya artifacts came from grave goods in Tikal. Painted pots depicted rulers enthroned surrounded by servants. The tomb was not thought of as the final resting place of the king. Originally pots would be filled with food and drink to sustain the dead in the afterlife. Drinks made from cacao were the best and most valued ones. In one tomb a set of carved bones was found that depicts the maize god traveling to the underworld in a canoe. After time in the underworld, also called Xibalba, the maize god was resurrected as the creator. The carved bones suggest that Maya kings were thought to undergo a similar journey ending in reincarnation. This seems similar to the Aztec kings being resurrected as gods. 

A major burial site was Jaina Island, off the coast of Campeche and west of Uxmal and Kabah. I couldn't find a good map of its location. Its location was important because when viewed from the mainland the island lay in the path of the setting sun. Jaina was a good place for the dead because the Mayas believed that the sun descended into the underworld at night. Something the Ancient Egyptians also believed. The souls could accompany the sun on its nocturnal journey to the underworld. The island may have been reached by a wooden bridge. That fact is also important because the Maya underworld was thought to be below the surface of a primordial ocean that existed before Earth. Jaina is Spanish and the Mayas called it Hanal, house of water.

The graves at this island had a vast array of ritual offerings. However, small clay figures were most commonly found. Many of which were made with molds and were painted bright colors. Some had clay pellets inside and doubled as rattles. Other were hollow to be used as whistles. The best of them were solid, hand crafted pieces for high class burials. Men and women of various rank are portrayed and could represent those laid to rest on the island. Some depict warriors, suggesting the island was a final resting place for those who were excellent in battle. The Maya gods were also depicted on these figures, mainly the sun and moon gods who were believed to have survived the perils of Xibalba. The figures could have be for guidance and encouragement to the deceased in their journey through Xibalba. 

The Mayas were thought, for a time, to be a peaceful race. We now know that they were quite the opposite. They would wage wars to gain land and captives. They would sacrifice their own and other peoples to appease their gods. They weren't peaceful, they were living life the way their gods told them they needed to. They were a truly complex culture, far advanced for their time. 

The Maya culture is extremely beautiful and complex for being in such an early time. I enjoyed doing both my group project and blog entry on them. I've so much each time it's crazy. I really can't wait to take an ancient civilization class and learn more about them. Thanks for reading!


Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Belief, Mythology, and Art. Thunder Bay Press. 2005.

Sumerian Burial Practices/Beliefs

This blog post is going to deal with the Sumerians, who are one of my favorite ancient cultures. Sumer was the birthplace of urban culture, writing and wheeled transport. They thrived well before the Egyptians and the Egyptians actually borrowed some of their culture and infused it with their own. From the Sumerians comes the first known written piece of Literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. I have actually read The Epic of Gilgamesh and it's an amazing story with a great insight into Sumerian culture and beliefs. It actually contains a story that is extremely similar to the story of Noah's Ark. Which is strange because it was written before the bible. Just thoughts for the day.

The Sumerians had their own story to explain why we die. They blamed a man named Adapa, which literally means man. Adapa served as their primeval Adam. He earned the enmity of the gods by cursing the south wind when it overturned his fishing boat. He was afterwards summoned to explain why he cursed the south wind to An, the father of the gods. Adapa confessed and in turned gained An's favor for doing so. Due to his great pleasure in Adapa's confession, An offered him the bread and water of eternal life. Why wouldn't you take eternal life when it's handed to you? Well Adapa was misguided by Enki, the cunning god of water, and rejected An's offer. This sounds very similar to the biblical story of Adam and Eve where Eve is tricked by the snake into eating the forbidden apple. Anyways, Adapa chose 2 other gifts presented to him, oil and a robe. These gifts were actually bad, the oil was the kind used to dress the dead and the robe was a shroud. Thanks to Adapa's choice, all of humankind was condemned to live and die as mortals without eternal life. Just like Eve condemned humanity to mortality.

The Sumerian's had no heaven, but they did have a hell. The underworld's, known as the 'Land of No Return', location varied across texts. The underworld was the domain of the Ereshkigal, the dark sister of the love goddess, Inana. One of the first known locations of the underworld was Kur, which means the mountain. The Sumerian's had the concept that Kur was all that was foreign to the Mesopotamian plain-dwellers. The underworld is generally said to be underground, which makes a lot of sense. Some myths say that it was reached by crossing water, 'the man-devouring river' with the aid of a boatman. The boatman is equal to the Greek Charon, the ferryman of Hades, the Greek underworld. The underworld was said to resemble a city with 7 walls and 7 gates. This also makes me think of the circles of hell for some reason.

It is agreed that the underworld was an undesirable place to live eternally. The spirits there lived ghostly half-lives in darkness. A part of  the legend of Gilgamesh tells of how Gilgamesh summoned his best friend, Enkidu, back from the underworld to give an account on the fate of the deceased. He didn't have good  news to report. He said that the souls that don't have graves just wander eternally without rest, because they weren't actually laid to rest. The ones who didn't have children just wept for all eternity. The ones that died by fire didn't have an existence at all, their soul was destroyed in the fire with their body. However,  one good thing that Enkidu could report was that the stillborn children who were robbed out of life on Earth got to play in Ereshkigal's realm. "At a table of gold and silver, laden with butter" So basically everyone who died was guaranteed to be miserable unless you were born as a stillborn. Sounds like a great place to look forward to going to after death. :)

The spirits of the dead were constantly tormented by hunger and thirst. Their only form of subsistence depended on their living relatives good will. The living were expected to take care of them by making libations at their graves. The living family members would gather at the grave and leave food and pour water into the ground for them. This practice reminds me of the Day of the Dead where the family brings the deceased favorite food and drink to their grave on their ofrendas on November 2nd every year.

Funerary Customs

The Sumerians were not generally long-lived, with a life-expectancy of less than 40 years. They mainly buried their dead instead of cremating. Some were even buried in vaults underneath their homes. As many as 10+ bodies have been found in such tombs, known as 'family tombs'. This was a long-lasting tradition that even the upper class practiced. 

In 1989, Iraqi archaeologists discovered burial chambers in a tomb complex underneath the harem quarter of the palace of Assyrian Kings. This was for queens and princesses to be buried in, roughly eight and ninth century BCE. Two of the burial chambers contained more than 82 pounds of gold objects. That is a lot of gold in just those two chambers. On a side note, why would they want to bury the queens and princesses underneath the harem? That just seems like a weird place to bury female royalty, under the females their husbands cheated on them with. 

Most Mesopotamians (Sumerians) were buried in cemeteries. The bodies were laid on their backs in individual graves. The graves were sometimes reopened to place a second family member instead. Why did they do this? Who was generally the second family member? Maybe they placed the wife or husband with the first body. Alas, we do not have this information. 

Close up of the coffin decoration
Some of the graves contained the bodies of dogs. It was common for pets to be buried just like their owners, with the same care that is. Meat bones have been found placed near the mouths of dogs to be food for the afterlife. 

The poorer citizens were simply wrapped in reed matting while the wealthy were placed in wood or clay coffins. One of the clay coffins was discovered in Uruk by the English archaeologist W.K. Loftus in 1850 and is now property of the British Museum. The coffin was constructed by joining slabs of clay to form a slipper-like shape, then adding a finer clay skim and either impressing or incising the decoration. They would then cover the coffin with green glaze and fire it upright. It is thought that the hole in the front of the coffin was for the manufacturer to help with firing.  This is one of three complete coffins successively recovered. It is decorated with stamped figures of soldiers covered in a green glaze. The coffin dates back to the Parthain period when Uruk was thriving. The burial practices of the period were different in some regions. In the north, bodies were buried in stone-lined graves. In the south, bodies were placed in coffins similar to this. 

Clay 'slipper-like' coffin

It has been recorded that the priests sometimes overcharged the citizens for burial. They apparently demanded an outrageous sum of 7 measures of beer and 420 loaves of bread. The ruler of Lagash noticed their overcharging practices and limited them to a much more reasonable price of 3 measures of beer and 80 loaves of bread. (roughly twenty-fourth century BCE)

Royal Tombs of Ur

The grave goods found in tombs were generally modest and personal. For example, jewelry or simple household items. A few members of the royal elite decided they wanted elaborate goods in their grave.

In 1922 the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania sponsored an expedition to Ur. The expedition was led by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. Woolley spent 12 seasons digging in Ur. He discovered a burial site outside the city walls next to a main temple area. The site was actually used a garbage dump before its first burial in roughly 2500 BCE. Weird that they decided to turn a landfill into a cemetery. He spent 6 years digging at this site and found 1,850 separate graves that were used in a 500 year period. Most of the graves were simple graves, the corpse was wrapped in reed matting, suggesting poorer status, and placed in a plain rectangular pit. A few graves held some more elaborate items such as vessels of imported alabaster and soapstone, mirrors, razors of copper, and personal accessories of gold, silver and lapis lazuli. 

Some extremely elaborate tombs were found, about 16 of them. They were found tightly clustered in the middle of the cemetery. Woolley named them the 'Royal Tombs'. The chambers were made of brick or stone with vaults or domes, which are the earliest known in architectural history. The Sumerians seem to be the first in many things in history. The tombs were constructed at the bottom of deep pits that were accessed through ramps built out of dirt. After the body was placed in the tomb the pits were covered. It is also possible for funerary chapels to be built above the tomb. The Sumerians building chapels above tombs reminds me of the Egyptians building temples for the living to make offerings to the dead at their tombs. Interesting how closely related these two cultures are really. 

The objects found in the tombs helped to identify only 3 of the occupants, King Meskalamdug, King Akalamdug, and Queen Puabi. The Kings' names do not appear on the Sumerian King List so historians believe that the tombs were from before the first dynasty of Ur, The 1st dynasty being the first group of Kings to claim over-lordship of all of Sumer. If they were from before the first dynasty then they were most likely just simple city-state governors. The idea of them being just city-state rulers makes the wealth of the goods found shocking. 

Standard of Ur
Many of the Sumerians best-known art has been located at this site. The Standard of Ur was found here in the corner of a tomb above the right shoulder of a body. Woolley suggest that it was carried on a pole like a flag representing Ur. Another theory was that it could possibly be the sound box of a musical instrument. Personally, knowing that the Egyptian standards were carried on poles to represent their nomes, I believe that Woolley is closer to the truth than the other musical theory. The present form of the Standard of Ur is only the best guess as to what it looked like. The standard was found with many of its components disintegrated and destroyed, this is a restoration. The main panels on the 'front' and 'back' are known as War and Peace. War shows an early depiction of a Sumerian army while Peace shows animals, fish and other goods brought in a procession to a banquet. (more info can be found here British Museum - The Standard of Ur)

The Helmet of Meskalamdug was also found here. It is called a lyre. It has simulated ears and hair on it to make it more realistic. It is made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Additional information can be found here, Penn Museum - LyreI don't want to spend too much time on it right now. 
Helmet, or Lyre, of Meskalamdug
Queen Puabi was found wearing a golden headdress in her tomb. It is a wreath of gold breech leaves. The corpse was also adorned with gold and lapis amulets, beads of gold, silver, carnelian and lapis. Penn Museum - Puabi's Headdress

Queen Puabi's Golden Headdress

The graves found at the cemetery at Ur also contained evidence of the dead's power and prestige. Some of them were filled with not just the corpse but the bones of others. In a tomb, next to Puabi's, an unidentified man was found, thought to be her husband by historians. The weird and slightly disturbing part is that between these two tombs, 137 corpses were found laid-out in serried ranks outside chambers. Also found with bullock cars, used to carry grave goods, the animals that pulled them, drivers, grooms, and ceremonial guards. Most of the bodies were females dressed in court finery, which suggests they were ladies in waiting to the royal couple. The victims appear to have died by their own hands, evidence was found to support this. Cups have been commonly found next to bodies such as these are thought to have contained poison. Don't drink the Sumerian Kool-Aid. However, in a tomb there has been bodies of soldiers and females that died due to a fatal blow to the head.

No literary references to this practice have been found except in one version of Gilgamesh where it speaks of the hero going to his grave with his retainers.

It is scholarly opinion today that the large-scale killing was only practiced for a short time in Early Sumerian history.

The Sumerians held many interesting burial practices and it becomes clearer what the Egyptians 'borrowed' and transformed into their own customs. I really wish we had more surviving information on Sumerians because I want to know why they did some their burial practices. We know how they buried people but we don't have the reasons why they did what they did and it's so heartbreaking that we don't. I enjoyed learning more about the Sumerians, sorry about the length and lack of pictures in the beginning. Thanks for reading!


Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations The Illustrated Guide to Belief, Mythology, and Art. Thunder Bay Press. 2005. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


The Aztecs had a similar view on death as the Incas. They believed death to just be another stage in the cycle of life. It was seen as the essence of life and the creation of a renewed beginning. So it was more or less a Beginning and an End at the same time, a never-ending cycle. Everything in the world that is living shares the same life force. Being born was seen as emerging from the spirit world and dying was the return back.
The underworld is known as Mictlan, and in some mythical accounts is placed in the north, but it is often referred to as being underground. Souls who had just arrived to the underworld had to face a series of tests and challenges. First they were required to cross a raging river. After that they had to find a way between two clashing mountains. They then had to climb a mountain made of obsidian. Obsidian is sacred to dark Tezcatilpoca. While climbing they had to face an icy wind that was so cold it could peel the flesh off your face. Sounds terrifying and also slightly like the 9 circles of hell. They had to defeat a snake, an alligator, survive crossing 8 deserts and climb to the top of 8 mountains.
Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Underworld
The lord of the underworld was Mictlantecuhtli, which means 'Lord of Mictlan'. He was one of the more prominent deities of Aztec religion. His worship sometimes involved ritual cannibalism. He is depicted as a blood-splattered skeleton. His earspools are made of human bones, which is common for Aztec deities to wear accessories made out of human bones and to be depicted with skulls/skeleton bodies. Skeletal imagery is  symbol of fertility, health and abundance. Mictlantecuhtli is wearing sandals, which represent his high rank as Lord of Mictlan. His arms are in an upright aggressive gesture that suggests he is ready to tear apart the dead who enter Mictlan. He has a wife called Mictecacihuatl, and they live together in a windowless home.

His wife Mictecacihuatl
Mictlantechuhtli governed over all 3 types of souls, normal deaths, heroic deaths (battle, sacrifice, childbirth), and non-heroic. 

Mictlantechuhtli and his wife are opposites/compliments of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, givers of life. Which makes me think of Yin and Yang. 

Upon death, the dead are buried with grave goods and upon entering they offered them to Mictlantechuhtli and his wife to try and get in their favor.

"From the sun god Tonatiuh came heat and light, from the clouds sent by the rain god Tlaloc and blown into place by Quetzalcoatl (in his manifestation as the wind god Ehecatl) fell the waters that gave life to the maize crop." (Ancient Civilizations, The Aztecs) The Aztecs believed human life was part of a cosmic movement of energy. In the Nahuatl language, the word for sacrifice was uemmana. Uemmana combines mana, which means to pass on and ventli means offering. Sacrifices were how the Aztecs returned life energy to its source, which is necessary to maintain the cycle of energy. Blood was the water of life, and was the god's favorite offering. The most common public form was to rip the victim's heart from their chest on  a sacrificial stone. The stone was called quauhxicalli, eagle stone, and the victims were spread-eagle on top of it. The stone was shaped in a way that forced the victim's body to arch back and force the chest upwards towards the tecpatl, sacrificial knife. The ritual required 6 priests. Four of them held the victim down, the 5th seized throat, and the 6th sliced and grabbed the heart. He would hold the heart up to the sun before throwing on God's image. The body was then threw down the steps and they generally sacrificed multiple victims so there was a huge pile of corpses.

Obsidian Rock
Other type of sacrifice was autosacrifice. They used volcanic glass, obsidian, or spines of cactus to cut themselves. Or they even drew cord of thorns across their penis or tongue. They sometimes soaked blood in bark paper before their offering.

Xiuhtechuhtli, the Fire God
There was also burning to honor the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli. They would celebrate Xipe Totec, Our Flayed Lord, god of vegetation and new plants. The victim was shot with arrows, allowed to collapse on ground while blood ran out of the body. It makes me think of life-giving rain. Once the body finally bled dry, it was fayed and the skin was worn by a young man in a ritual that resembles a fresh plant sprout emerging from a husk of old.

Victims were commonly prisoners of war. They went to their deaths as messengers to the gods. In some circumstances they were viewed as earthly representations of the gods, called ixiptla, which means likeness of the gods. The gods were visible to the viewing crowd as they became one with the victims.

They also honored Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of rivers. A young woman, viewed as ixiptla, was put to death during the festival of Huey Tozoztli in Lake Texcoco. Her blood was collected and poured into water.

At the festival of Toxcatl, an earthly form of Tezcatlipoca was slain. Tezcatlipoca was associated with a wide range of things:

  • night sky
  • nigh winds
  • north
  • earth
  • obsidian
  • enmity
  • discord
  • rulership
  • divination
  • temptation
  • jaguars
  • socery
  • beauty
  • war and strife
He was also known as Smoking Mirror, which connects to the volcanic glass, obsidian, because it is the materials mirrors were made form and they were used for shamanic rituals. To me, obsidian appears to be a huge part of Aztec sacrifice. 

Tenochtitlan's Great Pyramid
The Aztecs also made animal sacrifices including quails, dogs, turkeys and jaguars. Jaguar bones were actually found in the foundations of the Great Pyramid in Tenochtitlan. Jaguars were worshipped as a symbol of kingly power and fertility. It's interesting that the Aztecs went so far as to put them inside of their structures. 

Looking past sacrifices and moving onto Aztec burials. Most Aztecs were actually cremated. They were generally clothed very nicely, bound in a squatting position and wrapped in cloth before being burned. Rulers and nobility were buried in a stone vault. The creepy thing is that sometimes the noble's wife or servants were killed just to be buried with him at death. It reminds me of the Ancient Egyptians and their servant burials. They also buried many servants with their Kings at one point in their history. 

Sometimes a man was entombed or burned with a living dog. The dog was expected to be a useful guide in the underworld. It was a reminder of the voyage to Mictlan by Quetzalcoatl and his dog-double, Xolotl. 

The dead were buried/burned with goods that would help in their travels in Mictlan, such as:
  • food
  • water
  • blankets
  • a jade bead to act as a heart
  • paper
  • clothes
  • and grave goods to act as presents to the underworld lords
A few accounts say the souls of the dead find peace of extinction after their initial trials through Mictlan. But other accounts suggest they suffer eternally and find relief only one day a year, the Day of the Dead. Which is still celebrated today as the day the souls come back and mingle with the living. 

There is a version of Mictlan described in a codex of Quetzalcoatl's voyage at the beginning of the age. Quetzalcoatl went down to Mictlan by passing through the body of the earth goddess Coatlicue first. Then he traveled east of Mictlan and cremated himself on a pyre and his body was remade in the form of a flock of birds. In that form he traveled south, and is said to have died by beheading or dismemberment. He then passed without injury through the body of goddess Tlazolteotl,. He found two temples in the west, one that contained the souls of women who died during childbirth and the other that contained other warrior souls. He then passed through the earth monster Tlatelcuhtli and split into Red Quetzalcoatl and Black Quetzalcoatl. He finally made it into the north and sacrificed his Red Quetzalcoatl and threw himself, Black Quetzalcoatl, onto a sacrificial pyre. His spirit rose from Mictlan to the heavens and was known there as Venus, the Morning Star. 


Quetzalcoatl means feathered serpent. He is a deity related to Gods of the Wind, of Venus, of dawn, of merchants, of arts and crafts and of knowledge. he is the patron god of priesthood, of learning and knowledge. He is included among important gods of Aztec Pantehon.

The Aztecs also took a great stake in death, as many ancient cultures did. It intrigues me to know just how many different ways they could make offerings to the gods in blood. It's thought invoking of how much stake they put in their sacrifices to have good crops that year. They just wanted to ensure that the people were provided and looked after. The Aztecs were truly an intriguing culture that we have so much to learn about. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Inca Burial Practices - Part 2 Sacrifice, Slaughter and Ritual

In my previous blog post I mentioned the sacrifices at Llullaillaco. In this 'part 2' I would like to give a bigger background on sacrifices of Incas. Sacrifices of both animals and humans played a huge role in Inca society. Human and animal sacrifices were performed to honor and appease the gods, commemorate the building of temples to them, and appease the forces of nature. Common forms of sacrifice are decapitation, strangulation and  bludgeoning. The Moche culture, which is closely tied to the Incas, practiced ritual combat, a special form of sacrificial death. The Inca practice of sacrifice and burial on remote high mountaintops was also a special form of sacrifice. An Inca practice was deliberate exposure to lightning, which can be seen on one of the mummies from the previous blog post, and if the victim was killed they buried the qhaqha, lightning victim, at the place of death. The mummy child who was struck by lightning was buried at the top of the summit where she died. Very interesting that they combined the natural phenomenon of lightning with their religious sacrifice and probably saw it as a sign from the gods that they were appeased with their offering.
Mummy at Llullaillaco that was struck by lightning.
 The sacrificial rituals were a part of religious worship and were often an aftermath of warfare. One of the earliest examples of human sacrifice is from late Preceramic Period Aspero. An infant child and an adult were both found at the summit of the Huaca de los Sacrificios platform, located by Supe Port, Barranca, Lima. The child was adorned with a cap made of 500 shell, plant and clay beads, and was also accompanied by a gourd vessel, wrapped in layers of cotton and a cane mat. The child was also placed in a basket and then covered by a sculptured four-legged stone basin. The second body, the adult, was so tightly flexed that the limbs were cut so that the body was able to fit into the small pit. More on the Preceramic Period can be found at http://archeoperu.wordpress.com/

There is a wall in Cerro Sechin, Peru that is entirely carved stone slabs dictating war related sacrifice. The pictures shown below are pieces of the wall. The wall depicts triumphant warriors, alongside mutilated, contorted victims. The sort of looks like a war memorial. The victims are shown nude, torsos sliced and their eyes bulging with what appears to be pain. There are some headless bodies, limbless and some upside down. There are slabs with legs, arms and rows of eyes, stacked vertebrae and heads with closed eyes. There is even on warrior who carries a severed head dangling from his waistband. The wall is sort of a symbol, saying "Hey, we are victorious in war."  

The wall at Cerro Sechin. The row of eyes can be seen here. 
A piece of the wall at Cerro Sechin. 

Similar themes appear on the north coastal Cupisnique stone vessels and pottery. Carved soapstone bowls depict spiders with exaggerated pincers that are surrounded by severed heads. Other ceramic effigy vessels show captives with bound hands, and stirrup-spout bottles are decorated with severed heads, linked by cords or in net bags. The Incas approached sacrifice in a very interesting way linked with their religion. They had examples of sacrifice in almost everything it seemed. It's just fascinating to see another culture's beliefs and religion and how they went about pleasing their gods. Today we pray, go to church, do good deeds and try to live by the bible to appease God. (Some religions and people, not all) However, then they made sacrifices because they thought that it was want their gods wanted. Its amazing to trace how far human religion has come and changed since the beginning of human religion.

An example of a stirrup-spouted bottle.

Also present in the topic of sacrifice is decapitator deities. The Moche culture had a decapitator deity. The Moche culture lived in northern Peru close to the Inca culture so they are often used to show similarities and common themes together. On the walls of Platform 1 of the Great Plaza of the Huaca de la Luna, one of these deities resides. Huaca de la Luna is the Temple of the Moon and it is near Trujillo, Peru.
The Decapitator God and a worker. It shows the scale of the image.
The Decapitator God Aia-Paec.
The Decapitator God, also know as Aia-Paec, looks slightly intimidating to me. It had both human teeth and feline fangs. It is found on Moche artifacts such as ceramics, metalwork and textiles, as well as architectural decoration. It was put on buildings to remind citizens daily of his presence. When depicted full figured, the God is holding a crescent-shaped tumi, a ceremonial knife, and a severed human head. Metalwork around him also shows spiders brandishing tumi knives and severed heads. It seems like one, spiders and a big part of Inca culture along with sacrifice. And for two, was the pictures of the Decapitator God meant to scare the people or simply remind them of their God and what he needs to appease him? Oh the questions one wishes they had answers too and answers they could only get if time-travel was possible. Perhaps one day we will hold the key to Ancient Cultures, but maybe its best we don't. Maybe that's the allure of them, the mystery and the thrill of solving it from what they leave behind. According to What We Know of the Living, We Learned from the Dead: A Study of Correlations between Moche Mortuary Practices and Social Continuity and Change at San Jose de Moro paper I found online, excavations at Huaca de la Luna revealed multiple layers of the Decapitator God. The writer then goes on to say, "Each successive generation
of elites may have used this repeated representation to connect themselves to those who held
power before." That reminds me of the Egyptian Kings who would make their images look like great Kings of the past so that they could connect themselves and their reign with those great Kings. They did it so that their citizens would find the similarities between them and be like "Hey, he really is a great King like Good King Khufu! What a great guy!" Or something along those lines. The Egyptian Kings also did this with Gods that were popular in religion at the time. It was so that they would be viewed as a god. "Our King is a God. He is great." The rulers then might have been trying to portray themselves alongside the Decapitator God to say that they are mighty like him and possibly godlike as well. It would make sense because we have examples of it in Ancient Egypt as well. Maybe that's a good ruling technique! We do that today, associate ourselves with people we want to be like or have people see similar qualities in us. 

El Brujo, The Witch
Decapitator God at El Brujo
At Cao Viejo-El Brujo, El Brujo is Spanish for 'The Witch', which is just north of Trujillo, Peru. At the topmost terrace mound of a platform one can see the segmented legs of a spider, or crab, Decapitator God brandishing a tumi sacrificial knife. It was destroyed by looters at one point and now its fanged mouth isn't fully visible.

So basically what I have discovered so far is that sacrifice, slaughter, and both being connected to warfare and religious beliefs, is a huge topic in ancient civilizations. There's so much information and I'm trying to decide what is best for readers to get the most out of it. 

Now to Capacochas, which is child sacrifices. This is what the mummies at Llullaillaco were, Capacochas. Almost all of Inca rituals included sacrifice of some kind, mostly of llamas or guinea pigs. Interesting fact, brown llamas were sacrificed to Viracocha, the Creator, white to Inti, the Sun God, and dappled to Illapa, the Thunder. All animal sacrifices were conducted by slitting the animals throat. Fascinating that they actually separated the colors of llama coats and made each color specific to certain gods. 

Natural catastrophes, warfare, and crowning new rulers all involved human sacrifices because the Incas wanted to make sure that everything would go great. They wanted to make sure the Gods were happy and wouldn't strike at them in anger. The victims were generally non-Inca children around 10-15 years old. All sacrifice victims needed to be physically perfect. The victim would feast because in order to offer them to Viracocha they needed to be well satisfied. They were then clubbed or strangled, the throat was slit or the heart was cut out and offered to Viracocha still beating. Reminds me of Indiana Jones. 

Now the Capacocha was preceded by a ritual procession along a straight sacred ceque line in Cuzco, similar to the Nazca lines that make those giant pictures in the sand of animals. The parents of the child participated and thought their child being chosen to be sacrificed to be an honor. Which now we look back as savage but back then it was a huge honor to be able to appease the gods for the good of the rest of the citizens. The Capacocha victims were sanctified in the Coricancha temple in Cuzco and they then headed back to be sacrificed in their own province afterwards. 

Ancient Andean cultures all worshiped mountain gods. The Incas were the only ones who actually ventured to the peaks of mountains to kill and bury their sacrifices. Children seemed to be special sacrifices no matter what their 'heritage', whether or not they were Incas, because children were marched barefoot to the top of the mountain and then clubbed, strangled or even buried alive. They were left with mini dressed human figures, pouches with their baby teeth, and even nail parings. I would not want to be a child in the time of the Incas. It does not sound like fun to be clubbed to death to appease the gods, they can find some other way to appease them darn it! Sacrifices like this have been found in many places such as Cerro el Pomo and Mount Acongagua in northern Chile. Also on Ampato in Peru and Llullaillaco in norther Argentina. Llullaillaco seems to be the one that is well heard of because of the three children found there. 

Well, so now we understand why the children at Llullaillaco were at the mountaintop, left to the elements. Now, what I find interesting is that I didn't read anywhere that said those children were clubbed to death. However, the boy was strangled to death so hard it cracked ribs and dislocated his pelvis. The other two bodies actually died from exposure at the mountain top. Maybe the Incas decided to try a new way to appease the gods, by leaving children to suffer in the cold? Or perhaps it was so that there was a chance that lightning would strike them and they would have a better chance of seeing a sign from the gods? Either way I am greatly intrigued by the sacrifices at Llullaillaco and by Inca sacrifices in general. I hope that I find a class that teaches about these in greater detail. It's a lot easier to learn from a person who knows this than the internet or a book. I hope this helps with the background of Inca sacrifice. Sorry about the length but there is so much interesting information out there!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Incan Burials at Llullaillaco

As I was researching for blog I came across the Incan ceremonial site of Llullaillaco, found in Argentina. I found several interesting things that go along with this site. The Incan Road system actually connects to Llullaillaco at one place at least. Historians believe that it is likely that at least one other road leds to Llullaillaco. The Incan Road system contains many subsidiary roads running east-west that linked the main north-south roads on both the west and east of the Andean mountain range. Other important Inca ritual sites have been found close to the Incan road. A subsidiary trail led to Llullaillaco from the north-south road and another led to the site from the east-west road north of the site. The impression is that the secondary roads were built for the sole purpose of reaching the scared mountain.    

The site itself is beautiful. (mountain in the photo above) There have been a few structures found at the site. A two-room building and a windbreak were built into a section of the summit that offers natural protection from the wind. However, the ceremonial structures found were located in the most visible points on the ridge. Placing the ceremonial structures there seemed to make them that much more noticeable to the public eye as a sort of reminder, in my eyes. The photo below is the two-room building found on the summit. The walls of the structure is made of unworked stone without morar. The dooraways to these rooms are covered by stone lintels that are still intact. Wood was found in both rooms, including pieces used as beams. Several beams were still found in place on the structure. Found on the floor of the structure were wooden cactus and hardwood beams of algarrobo and straw tied together with fibers, which looks to be a part of the roof of the structure. 3 basketwork bags were also found in the area. It seems like the building was used as a shelter by the people who conducted the ceremonies. Which would make sense, if a ceremony took a day I would imagine a person to be tired afterwards and not want to trek all the way down the summit. 

A windbreak is located about 9m north of the two room structure. It is semi-rectangular with rounded ends. The main wind blows from the west and the structure could have been a shelter for people and maybe llamas. A trail leads from this structure to where the ceremonial platform was built. To the west of this platform is a circle formed by two rows of stones. An undecorated shard was found on the surface and on another circle west of this one, small pieces of charcoal were found. Another stone circle contained pieces of charcoal, cinder, and burned firewood. Perhaps this circles were used to burn offerings to the gods?

The ceremonial platform is located on the northern end of the summit. It is oriented 30 degress magnetic north, towards the direction of other volcanoes containing Incan ruins. Rebitsch saw a circle of stones inside the platform. Three dark red stones were also found on the surface and Rebitsch thought they might have served as cult symbols. However, thanks to the recent discovery of three mummies at the platform it may have been intended that those red stones mark their burials. Only burned grass, a brick-colored shard and a piece of multi-colored cloth was found on the platform. However, three separate burials were also found with several offering assemblages. They were the mummies of a  young woman, a girl and a boy. 
The young woman's mummy was put on display in a museum in Argentina. Its amazing how perfectly these bodies were preserved on the summit. Apparently these mummies are evidence the the Incans 'fattened up' their sacrifice. A British-led team suggest that they were on a ceremonial diet before sacrifice. It was shown that they were fed maize, which was a corn food considered to be for the elite, and an animal protein most likely from dried llama meat. It is thought that they were feed maize beer or chicha and coca leaves to make them more compliant with their fate, also possibly to get rid of altitude sickness. Their hair was also cut ceremonially. All of this leads to the thought that their statues was being elevated before sacrifice. 

It is known that when the Incans conquered tribes they would take the children of local rulers or attractive children to sacrifice or to be raised by priestess to either be given as wives to nobles, sacrificed or made into priestesses. 

The two girls found were left at the summit and died from exposure to the cold while the boy found was actually suffocated with a cloth so tight it crushed his ribs and dislocated his pelvis. 

The site of Llullaillaco is very interesting and a beautiful site that actually holds some pretty grim secrets. I would personally like to travel there myself someday to take photos and look and the structures found on the summit to maybe try to draw my own conclusions or further prove the ones already made. The amount of knowledge we can gain from one site is immense. Learning about the children sacrifices the Incans conducted has made me want to research more on these people. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tombs in Ancient Egypt Part 1: The Introduction

When one thinks of Ancient Egypt and their burial practices, mummification is one of the first things to come to mind. However, Ancient Egypt had several other burial practices than just mummification such as, mastabas, kings having two tombs, and pyramids, just to name a few.
Ancient Egypt was once divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. (Lower actually being Northern Egypt and Upper being Southern Egypt) With two different sections of Egypt, there only makes sense that there will be more than one kingdom. When you newly unify a country its difficult to keep everyone happy when they no longer have their own king for their section of the country. To solve this problem the kings of dynasty 1 started the tradition of having two tombs, one in Abydos, the southern royal cemetery, and one in Saqqara the northern royal cemetery. By having two tombs the king would secure the happiness of both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Palace Facade style of tombs in Saqqara
Mastaba style of tomb at Abydos
Mastabas, like the one shown above, are common at Abydos. They were built this way because they resembled a shrine-like rounded top and can be looked at as housing a divine king. While at Saqqara, a palace facade style of tomb was more common. This was more like a palace looking type of tomb.

Stepped Pyramid of Djoser & the Giza Pyramids
Ancient Egyptians moved from one-level tombs to step pyramids, which can be said to resemble mastabas stacked on top of each other, such as the Step-Pyramid complex of Djoser. And from step-pyramids they went to true pyramids, which would be the Giza pyramids.